Byzantine Reality

Searching for Byzantine failures in the world around us

Only a Plank Between One and Perdition

Let’s talk about Marvel’s most-recently-wrapped-up event, AXIS. The premise is simple enough to start with: the Uncanny Avengers, a team of X-Men and Avengers working together to make the world a better place, run into the Red Skull, who has been given a huge power upgrade in the form of Professor X’s brain. They defeat him early on but fail to capture him, and get distracted by other baddies throughout the series, so they don’t end up actually capturing him. This gives the Red Skull and friends the time they need to hatch a scheme to “save the world from the scourge of mutantkind”. And for such an irredeemable villain like the Red Skull, series author Rick Remender does an excellent job of explaining his motivations.

The now-super-powered Nazi keeps true to his old motivations of needing to dominate others to make himself feel better, but gains a new quasi-heroic “motivation”: he’s trying to save the world from mutantkind. This works great in two different ways. First, it serves his purpose of needing to dominate humanity, because he’s the one saving them from mutantkind, and he expects to be worshipped by humanity for being their savior. Second, he does make a good case that humanity needs to be saved from mutants. Their powers are so all over the map that it would only take a single mutant to destroy the Earth. But it’s clear this is a secondary motivation, since the Red Skull tells Captain America that he also needs to save humanity from itself. He sees humanity as a bunch of fat slobs who need their junk food and reality television, and that he will save them from the nightmare they’ve dreamt up for themselves.

So you’d think that AXIS would be an “everyone vs. Red Skull” dogpile. And you’d be totally wrong. It instead is a story with no one villain, and no one hero, and throughout, who is a hero and who is a villain changes. To quote the marketing material, “there’s a fine line between good and evil”, but perhaps a different way to look at it that’s equally true is Nietzsche’s line from “Beyond Good and Evil”:

You who fight with monsters ought to see to it that you do not become a monster yourself. And when you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes back into you.

The story begins with the Red Skull and company capturing our heroes. It’s captured very nicely as we see Magneto, a Jew who survived the Holocaust, once again in a concentration camp (this time for mutants) under the control of the Red Skull (obviously a Nazi). It unleashes this raw, visceral hatred from Magneto, who eventually breaks free, murders the Red Skull’s henchmen, and smashes the Red Skull’s head with a giant piece of debris. And it fits the quote above nicely: it reminds us how Magneto has been consumed with anger fighting against the monsters of the world who have sought to destroy him and his people, whether it be the Jews or mutantkind.

But one lesson we’ve seen in Remender’s Uncanny X-Force that comes back here is that murder doesn’t solve the problem, and it sows the seeds for greater problems in the future. We don’t have to wait long for these seeds to bear fruit, as the Red Skull’s “death” allows him to unlock all of Xavier’s abilities to the fullest, becoming Red Onslaught.

Introducing Onslaught here is an excellent choice from Remender. Originally Onslaught was this psychic fusion of the repressed anger from Xavier and Magneto, with both of their power sets, who single-handedly takes out the X-Men and Avengers back in the 90s. This time it’s Xavier and the Red Skull (hence the slightly different name), and this time, the story moves at what I would call a much more appropriately faster speed. Both the Avengers and X-Men remember how strong Onslaught is, so they get their act together and attack him at full force as fast as possible, since they know, as Magneto puts it in AXIS #1:

Strike with everything you have! I know this animal well and if we do not kill Red Onslaught right now — we will all be dead tomorrow!

This is done to particularly nice effect over a two-page spread, and as our heroes team up quickly to stop Red Onslaught, he spreads a psychic wave of hatred across the entire world. But while one major theme of this battle is “watch how hatred tears apart relationships”, the other force in play here is mistrust. Red Onslaught has been playing on Tony Stark’s mistrust of the other Avengers and X-Men and manipulates him into building a pair of Stark Sentinels, made of adamantium, who are programmed to tear our heroes apart. And they make short work of both the Avengers and X-Men, taking them out of the fight.

So who is left to save the day? Amusingly enough, it’s Magneto, who is still perceived as a villain by almost everyone in this story (except really Rogue and Cyclops). He realizes that he can’t win the day on his own, and recruits a team of heavy-hitter villains, since he knows that the Stark Sentinels only know how to defeat heroes, not villains. Tony explains this by saying that his mistrust extended to the villains as well, who he never thought would be able to work together. But Magneto and company make short work of the Sentinels and Red Onslaught, giving the Scarlet Witch and Doctor Doom a shot at an “inversion spell”, designed to reverse the balance of power between Red Skull and Xavier, putting the latter back in charge. Naturally, it doesn’t go 100% to plan (we’re still in the first chapter of AXIS of course!), and while Red Onslaught is defeated and “inverted”, so is everyone else in the battle. This isn’t immediately obvious at the time, but now all the “bad guys” are “good guys” and vice versa.

Steve Rogers (who isn’t inverted) shows up to take Red Skull away and lock him up, but once again, mistrust between the Avengers and X-Men destroys what should be the high point in their relationship. The X-Men think Xavier is still in Red Skull’s brain, and want to save him, but the Avengers saw that the world almost got destroyed and want to lock him up themselves. Steve is on the side of the inverted Avengers here and doesn’t back down when Havok challenges him in front of everyone, so Havok renounces his leadership position in the Uncanny Avengers and the X-Men and Avengers go their separate ways (with the Avengers taking the Red Skull). And the villains-turned-heroes have also slipped off to ponder their new outlooks on life.

We’ve seen how hatred and mistrust of others, when let loose, nearly destroys the Earth for our heroes, and how it took the so-called-villains to save the day. Curiously, they’re the ones who are able to operate effectively as a team and destroy the Stark Sentinels, although this is really because (1) the Sentinels aren’t designed to take them down, and (2) they have a lot less baggage with one another. The latter point is the more interesting one – we see our heroes bicker with one another (both Avengers and X-Men) as to what Xavier really wanted in life. They have a hard time getting on the same page, as we see Havok blaming Cyclops for mutantkind being split into easily targeted groups, and Evan (aka Genesis) blaming both of them for not getting their act together and actually embracing non-violence ala Xavier’s dream in the first place.

Conversely, the villains know where they stand with each other. They don’t trust each other, but they know that they don’t need to be together at the end of the day. They just need to trust each other long enough to save the Earth and make sure they have an Earth to live on (and plunder in future schemes). They aren’t really thrilled with each other, but they don’t have the years of anger and mistrust at each other that the heroes have.

This ends the first chapter of AXIS, appropriately subtitled “The Red Supremacy”. And while we’ll see anger and mistrust between the Avengers and X-Men continue throughout AXIS, it evolves in a very interesting way in the next chapter, “Inversion”. Now our heroes and villains are “inverted” as an accidental side-effect of inverting Red Onslaught. It ends up being much deeper than “heroes became villains” and vice-versa, so let’s begin by taking a look at our inverted Avengers.

The most interesting inversion to me is Iron Man’s, partly because he doesn’t get inverted back when AXIS ends, and also because he gets his own series, Superior Iron Man, where we get to see his inversion really blossom. Before the inversion, I think it’s most accurate to describe Tony Stark as being of a neutral good alignment. He follows the law, but doesn’t let it constrain him (hence the neutral designation), and does fight to save the lives of others, even those he doesn’t have a personal relationship to (hence the good designation). You might want to make the case that Tony Stark’s sins as part of the Illuminati would kick him off the “good” team, but during the “Great Society” arc, we learn that when he’s given the choice to destroy their Earth to save ours, he doesn’t. He isn’t willing to take innocent lives, even to save many more innocent lives, which would put him in the neutral team (your point of view may even put him in the evil team for doing this). So he really is neutral good.

After the inversion, he ends up firmly in chaotic neutral territory. He is completely unconcerned with law or authority, and only concerned with doing things that make him feel good, hence the chaotic designation. In his mind, this is entirely justified – his track record shows that he is a genius and smarter than even gods like Thor. But he isn’t evil – we see in Superior Iron Man that he goes out of his way to save people’s lives in San Francisco. So you’d be inclined to call him “good”. But I wouldn’t. He saves people based on convenience and personal relationships. The only reason he cares about helping Teen Abomination (as of issue #5, the most current as of this writing) is originally because it will help his own image, and later because Tony has a personal relationship with his father. Tony has endangered the lives of everyone in San Francisco with Extremis so that he can be even more rich, be worshipped by its citizens, and he (perhaps disingenuously) believes that he is helping them. The series is an extremely interesting read, which I would summarize as something like “Ayn Rand meets Marvel”. Tony Stark does seem like he’s gone mad at times, but he also does justify his position well.

Sam Wilson, also known as the new Captain America, inverts in a different way. Like Steve Rogers, he’s firmly in the lawful good alignment. He questions the law but obeys it, placing him in lawful territory, and does go out of his way to save his enemies (we see him try to save Batroc and Sin in All-New Captain America #1 and #3) as well as his friends, so he’s firmly on the “good” team. The inversion puts him in a chaotic evil alignment, which is funny because it’s so far opposite that it makes his lines laughably evil to read. Remender notes this in AXIS #5, when Captain America says “Tell me where you took the Red Skull or I’ll snap your damned neck!”, and Spider-Man replies “Literally the least ‘Captain America’ line of dialogue ever”. And it’s true – Cap is hard to take seriously since he’s so comically evil. He wants to lock up or kill pretty much all the other super-powered people (heroes and villains alike) since they could be a threat to him eventually, which makes sense since he has no powers. And he openly talks about how people need a tyrant to rule over them, to protect them from themselves. But the seriousness does come back since he’s (strangely enough) the one holding the inverted Avengers together. He tells them the truth – work with me for now and we’ll take out everyone else, and then we can go our separate ways. It’s a simple yet effective bargain, and pretty much the same one that Magneto uses to get the non-inverted villains together back in “The Red Supremacy”.

Let’s take a look at Thor. Like Tony Stark, Thor is in neutral good territory. He follows laws on Earth pretty much because they align up with how he was raised in Asgard, but will break them when he thinks he knows better. He also has a much stronger sense of interpersonal loyalty, firmly putting him in neutral ground. He also is one of “Earth’s mightiest heroes” for a reason, because he’s good! He saves innocent lives wherever he can, regardless of the cost to himself (admittedly this tends to be minimal since he’s so strong), but is far more likely to kill than Iron Man or Captain America in times of war. And like Captain America, the inversion puts Thor in chaotic evil territory as well, but a different flavor of it. It’s much more focused on the “chaotic” part of it. Here, Thor feels more like the Young Thor that Jason Aaron set up in “Thor: God of Thunder”, who is impetuous, self-serving, a drunk, and who will basically do whatever makes him feel good. This starts off with a temporary membership in the inverted Avengers, continues into a binge-drinking trip across the country, and ends up robbing a casino and gambling with the same money (in the same casino) until he’s confronted by inverted-Loki. He will kill if it’s convenient to do so, so he is evil, but doesn’t actively go seeking these situations out (unlike inverted-Cap), and is much more focused on this chaotic hedonism. And it’s done in a way that makes a lot of sense – he’s still torn up about being unworthy to wield Mjolnir, but this sorrow and anger manifests differently than in his non-inverted state.

Another interesting inverted character is Evan, who gets inverted into the classic villain Apocalypse. This inversion is a bit different than the others because the reader instantly recognizes who he’s inverting into, and it’s obvious that Evan has gone from lawful good to chaotic evil. But at the same time, it’s deeper than that. It’s the resolution of Evan’s entire character arc going back to his introduction in Uncanny X-Force, where nature versus nurture looms over Evan and everyone wonders when he’s going to succumb to his dark nature and turn into Apocalypse. It haunts him at the Jean Grey School, as his fellow classmates are well aware of who he looks like and tease him down this path, but he repeatedly rises above it. But finally, he becomes Apocalypse at the hands of this inversion. And yet, that’s not the end of the story. His long-time friend Deadpool (now inverted into a Buddhist monk, dubbed “Zenpool”) initially fails to convince him to be a better person. But by the end of AXIS, he succeeds and uses his awesome Apocalypse powers to rescue Steve Rogers and save the day.

So the inversion doesn’t “force” our heroes to be evil, and our villains to be good. It doesn’t take away their free will, which would make this a truly boring story. It takes the smarter road, and says “rewiring someone just a little differently can make a huge difference”, which is another way of saying the series’ tagline “there’s a fine line between good and evil.” We see the same thing happen in the last issue of AXIS with Steve Rogers and the inverted Captain America (Sam Wilson). Steve isn’t able to entirely convince Sam that what he’s doing is wrong, but is able to make Sam stop fighting for a few moments and actually think about what he’s doing.

And it’s not just “the inverted heroes can be convinced to do good.” Magneto is inverted towards the side of good and refuses to aid the X-Men in their goal of destroying humanity, but when he catches Tony Stark, he instinctively thinks of killing him to save everyone (more of a non-inverted Magneto way of thinking). He comes close, but is easily convinced that killing started this whole mess and won’t fix it.

At the end of the day, almost everyone is reverted back to normal, with Havok, Iron Man, and Sabretooth being the exceptions. The villains-gone-good film a video before their reversion taking the fall for everyone else (the most heroic act in all of this), and as they say, the story goes on.

But AXIS does teach us a lot about the heroes and villains of the Marvel Universe. It reminds us how close the world is to extinction constantly, and how the X-Men or Avengers could easily take over (or destroy) the world if they really wanted to. Yet ultimately, it reminds us that what “being good” means is hard to precisely define. The heroes-gone-bad still think they’re heroes (for the most part) or at least have believable lies that they can tell to hide their need to control others in the name of heroism. And this goes for the X-Men just as much as it does for the Avengers. The X-Men thought they were doing good by going a mostly-peaceful route ala Charles Xavier, and when inverted, still think they’re doing good by violently saving themselves from the scourge of humanity, ala Magneto. I think it’s nicely summed up by this quote from Mary McCarthy:

We all live in suspense, from day to day, from hour to hour; in other words, we are the hero of our own story.